There are many names for Sonny Vaccaro, including the man who captured the “6 degrees of basketball,” the “Forrest Gump of basketball,” and even a “Marlon Brando, in the garden, with the God Father,” but one that best fits the bill is “Sole Man.” Vaccaro pushed the envelope when it came to marketing for big brand names like Nike, Adidas, and Reebok. Vaccaro was the vessel in creating what basketball marketing is today. He was and still is the most valuable marketing asset in the $13 billion athletic shoe industry. His radical ideas paved way for making today’s sports brands easy to market.
How it All Started | The Yellow Brick Road to a Signature Marketing Icon
The first thing that Vaccaro did was put together an all-star basketball tournament for the best college basketball players. Vaccaro made the event about the players, not about the coaches, schools, or even event itself and people took notice. It was the best thing that these kids would ever have the chance of experiencing in their lives as they came from low-income communities with limited opportunity. He was able to trigger and capture the emotional aspect from the buyer’s perspective.
Vaccaro then found an opportunity to make basketball sneakers more stylish. After going back and forth with Nike, he received over 60 pairs and began giving them out to college teams for free. Eventually, Nike would pay coaches $10,000 to encourage their players to wear the shoes and it worked. These underfunded programs needed shoes and Nike was able to provide it to them for free. In 12 months alone, Vaccaro took over basketball as it was and grew Nike 1800%, and he didn’t stop there.
The next step in the evolution was to endorse an up and coming basketball player getting drafted into the NBA. Nike executives pushed for three draft picks and spread the dollars evenly, Vaccaro said to pool the money for one draft pick. He knew that competitors would catch on quickly, so they needed to create an opportunity that cannot be beat. Vaccaro wanted Michael Jordan who was sponsored by Converse at the time. Nike and Vaccaro went all in and were able to sign Jordan. That’s when the iconic Air Jordan came out.
During this evolution, the media had its say in the matter. Vaccaro was often blamed for destroying the game and what it stood for. It was believed that he was not looking out for the best interest of the basketball players. As a result of continued negative media, Nike had to let Vaccaro go. During Vaccaro’s 30 for 30 documentary on ESPN, he looks back on this media attention saying, “I don’t influence kids. I don’t think anyone should be involved in the recruiting process except parents and kids. If things happen subconsciously, like in ‘The Manchurian Candidate,’ brainwashing, well, I can’t control that.”
Since Then | Crushing the Competition and Going Back to the Streets
Of course, getting fired did not stop Vaccaro. Adidas brought him on almost immediately and Vaccaro went back to the basics; he went back to the streets. As he did with Nike, he launched an all-star basketball game, but instead, with high school students. That’s where Vaccaro spotted a young Kobe Bryant. He spent a solid 6 years with Adidas, but it came to a point where Kobe was not satisfied with the shoe’s design and performance. In 2004, Kobe left Adidas and signed with Nike. Kobe is still with Nike today.
Although this wasn’t the best news for Vacarro, what was worse was the brewing war between Adidas and Nike both bidding to sign Lebron James. When Vacarro met Lebron, he placed a $100 million figure contract to his name at $10 guaranteed per year. Unfortunately when Adidas’ made the offer, they offered only $7 million a year with built in incentives to meet the $10 million per year mark. Nike countered with a seven-year $90 million contract. “That was the single dumbest mistake anyone could have,” recalls Vacarro when Lebron rejected Adidas’ offer.
Today | A Repetitive Marketing Campaign That Still Works
Fast-forward 20 years to today where sports brands are still successfully using Vaccaro’s marketing strategies. Nike expanded their focus outside of basketball players to include athletes like Cristiano Ronaldo, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Maria Sharapova. Adidas endorsed David Beckham, Damian Lillard, Derrick Rose, and Lionel Messi. Under Armour signed athletes like Tony Romo, Misty Copeland, Stephen Curry, and even model, Gisele Bundchen. Reebok endorsed the Manning brothers and even rapper, Swizz Beatz.
Now 75, Vaccaro still has the swagger that he brought to the table when he entered the business. A die-hard for basketball, an advocate for underprivileged kids, Vaccaro sparked groundbreaking growth for pop culture in basketball and sneakers. He created a platform for athletes to become the face of the product and as a result, he humanized the brand and their clothing. Today, Sonny Vaccaro’s marketing tactics have yet to be surpassed. His strategies, although simple, came from the heart and have remained authentic until this day.